by Peter Fröberg Idling
reviewed by A.A. Prime
They were once a professional couple living a comfortable, middle-class existence in Stockholm. Now Simon is missing and Jenny is searching for him. The main body of the novel is a flashback to the events leading up to Simon’s disappearance.
After losing his family’s ancestral farmland in south Gotland in an inheritance dispute, Simon becomes determined to buy a plot of land in the region and build his own summerhouse. The only plot available, Nidamörkur (a name which evokes darkness and ancient forces in Swedish), is a site of archaeological interest that has been left wild and overgrown. Undeterred, Simon purchases the plot with his and Jenny’s joint savings – without telling her. When he is made redundant he decides to take advantage of the period of unemployment by staying in his friends’ summerhouse on Gotland full-time and working on the build.
Though Simon ascribes great value to building as evidence of masculine prowess, he is actually not much of a builder. Nor can he find the manly camaraderie he was hoping for with the local farmers and builders, despite his insistence that he isn’t just any city-slicker – he is of local stock. Jenny remains in Stockholm, understandably unhappy with Simon’s choices, and he is left alone with his plot of land.
Not all is as it seems at Nidamörkur. The archaeological ruins turn out to be ancient graves encircled by great oak trees and occult rock formations. Legend calls it a place ‘where fires burned’ and a site of heathen sacrifice. According to the neighbouring farmer, a local man was found there burned to death, and the cause remained a mystery. Simon discovers the unsavoury nature of his plot for himself: ghoulish visions of a figure watching him, dizzy spells, and a sense of darkness emanating from the trees. The photos he takes there all come out blank, and the supposedly clean water from the well burns his throat. Simon starts losing touch with reality. His fear of the dark grows, as does his sense of lurking evil. Yet he will not give up on his dream of a summerhouse, his ‘own little corner of paradise’.
Meanwhile in Stockholm, sceptical Jenny begins to research the history of Nidamörkur and Gotland lore. The level of detail around the plot as a site of mystical evil and historical crime gave me the feeling that if I re-read the whole thing carefully I might be able to solve the mystery of what ultimately happens to the protagonists. I was especially intrigued to find an appendix listing all the genuine sources used for the Gotland history and myth appearing in the book.
Some reviews have criticised the novel for not having enough horror to be a horror story. While it is true that Peter Fröberg Idling’s first foray into the genre reads more like a thriller – atmospheric and suggestive rather than shocking – I am not convinced that horror was even his intention. The author goes to great pains to paint the landscape and describe the mundane details of Simon and Jenny’s lives, past and present. Hints of supernatural threat hover over the realism. While there are occasional vivid flashes of true horror, it is largely unclear whether it is external evil or a manifestation of Simon’s fear.
The greatest nods to the horror genre, to my mind, are Simon’s very obvious transgressions of the ‘don’t go into the cellar alone!’ variety. When his digger disturbs one of the ancient graves, not only does he remove a small flute made of bone and keep it in his pocket, he actually plays a tune on it. He may as well be inviting evil round for tea.
Personally, I read the novel less as a supernatural horror story than as a reflection on the facade of modern, civilised life and its disconnection with land and history. In this light, it is an incredibly astute piece of writing. Simon is the epitome of modern masculinity gone wrong. He is disconnected, unfulfilled, without purpose – an example of Marx’s theory of alienation. Uprooted from his ancestral land, robbed of his family property, fired from his job, losing touch with his girlfriend, he is emasculated. In order to fulfil the promises of masculine entitlement, he needs to stand on his soil, make his own decisions, be one of the men working the land in his community. And yet, the good life eludes him. He is unable to penetrate the close-knit community and manual labour turns out to be darn difficult for hands more adept with a mouse than with a spade.
As Simon is further consumed by darkness, it becomes apparent that the civilised world he hails from is a thin veil under which ancient, untamed forces dwell. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say, he does become a part of the land and community – of sorts. He does reconnect with history. But at a horrific price. Be careful what you wish for…
Natur & Kultur, 2020.
Foreign rights: Erik Larsson, Partners in Stories.
Peter Fröberg Idling is a writer and literary critic. His debut novel, Song for an Approaching Storm, was nominated for the August Prize and the Dublin Literary Award. It was reviewed in SBR 2013:1.